Writing my final reflective blog post feels bittersweet in hindsight. On one hand this module has been a major learning experience and has given me a peek on Team Dynamics, Managing creative people, implementing Design Thinking principles in my creative process, Pitching for Investment, Trading and overall Running a Start-up in the Creative Industries. On the other hand, and in a more tangible sense my team could have simply produced better results. We were dubbed the most skilful team in our class but we ultimately failed to meet our expectations.
We are now living in the COVID-19 era where we have been attending classes from home and preparing our assignments while in lockdown. These are strange times but I see it as an opportunity for humanity to reflect on the way we have been living and working. Finding a job during these times will be tough for us as future Master’s graduates and tougher for someone like me who works in the product and interior design sectors where there is constant human interaction. This module is going to be very relevant in my near future because if I wish to be working soon, my best opportunity may arise from setting up my own business.
The first crucial part of this module (and of any project) was choosing a Team. I had closely been watching and secretly interviewing some of my classmates with the goal of forming a functional and diverse team. The one quality that I was desperately looking for in my potential teammates was Communication. According to theschooloflife (2018) we are inherently bad communicators. We tend to assume that people know what is in our minds without the need for us to explain it to them and I wanted to pick people that I thought had figured out how to communicate within a team so we could avoid time consuming arguments. I joined a team which had two mature students as I believed their maturity meant they were good communicators and the fact that they had been previously involved in team projects also helped my decision. Although the four of us were from MACE, we had diverse backgrounds and a good mix of Business and Creative Industries pedigree.
I took on the role of Managing Director because I wanted the experience of leading a team to give me insights for my future career as an Entrepreneur. I dream about running a Product and Interior Design Studio that focuses on human needs and sustainable ways of living. This opportunity gave me the experience of leading a team in a safe environment.
Now that our team was decided, we started building our Start-up. After discussing various business ideas, we agreed on developing HugBuddy, a meditative pillow that helps people deal with stress and anxiety in a physical and spontaneous manner. We started by using the HMW method (DesignKit, no date) to ask the question: How Might We create a sense of safety and comfort for anxious air travellers? We used the different Canvases introduced to us to visualise if the solution we were offering matched our potential customer’s needs. The Lean Canvas helped us deconstruct our idea into key assumptions (Leanstack, no date). It helped us visualise our customer segments which first loosely consisted of people who travel on planes and have a fear of flight and people who experience anxiety consistently in their lives. We understood that we had to provide a solution to their problem. The Lean Canvas also helped us formulate our unique value proposition which was bringing physical relief and comfort to our users by the way of a proven cure: a Hug.
Truly defining our value proposition was not an easy task as we wanted our product to do ‘everything’. We tackled that problem by using the Value Proposition Canvas. By filling the canvas we realised that our value proposition could be appealing to more customer segments than we had planned. It helped us precisely define and expand our customer profiles (Strategyzer, no date). We understood that our product could be valuable to elderly people because they spend a considerable amount of time at home and are lacking affection. We decided that our product was now a mindfulness accessory and much more than a travel pillow. These two canvases were used for the purpose of creating a convincing Business Model which in turn helped us to better conduct structured, tangible and strategic conversations between ourselves (the team) and to potential investors and partners (Osterwalder, 2013).
CBInsights (2019) states that working with the wrong team, experiencing team disharmony and a lack of passion are three out of the top twenty reasons that Start-ups fail. By November, my team started to feel broken. Every meeting was unproductive and we were arguing instead of steering our business forward. Although we had the same goal in mind, we just could not think on the same page and were paddling in different directions. We argued over the shape, the materials, the feel, the marketing strategies, the customer segments, the pricing, everything. To try solving this issue, we decided to let Design thinking methods do the decisions for us. We applied three defining Design thinking components into our process. These three components were Empathise, Define and Ideate (d.school, 2018). They guided us to decide that the shape of HugBuddy should be a mix between a travel pillow and a body pillow so it could be used inside and outside of the home. They also guided us on materials used and overall feel of the product.
I learned that Design Thinking is a Human Centred approach to innovation (Brown, 2008) and that the user is always the most important element of the design process. Each decision taken will be taken according to user’s behaviours, needs and preferences. I will carry that insight with me in my future role to build my Design Studio around people’s needs.
On the first day of the module, our course director educated us about the class’s Ethos, Attitudes and Behaviours. MACE and more specifically the Design Thinking module were supposed to be all about Fun, Playfulness, Experimentation, Openness to Ideas and Original approaches to Problem Solving (Song, 2019). Those characteristics were missing from my team and I was growing frustrated.
According to Indeed (2019), there are four types of Team conflicts. Task-Based conflicts, Leadership conflicts, Work Style conflicts and Personality clashes. I have experienced all of those conflicts with one particular teammate and it was a strange Status game that I wanted nothing to do with. A significant incident happened just before our first mock Dragons Den and I decided to withdraw from my group, taking most of the work that I had completed with me. Fortunately, two teammates withdrew as well and we formed a new group which we called Planit.
The biggest takeaway from this experience is that I want my future work team to share the same Ethos that our course director tried to instil in us. Because as I came to learn the hard way, Ethos influences an organisation’s capability for creativity and innovation and not only team harmony (Song, 2019).
I also believe that if the situation was slightly different, we could have better communicated and found a way out of it. Also according to Sinha (2016), Task Conflicts can lead to better team performance if dealt with correctly and by using reflective communication. It is something that I will consider managing better in my future.
I have been to big international trade fairs (such as Salone del Mobile in Milan) as a visitor through my family business and even participated in local trade fairs (Beirut Design Fair) through my previous job at an architecture studio. I have learned that Trade Fairs are a crucial event for Start-ups and Businesses. On the surface, these events provide an opportunity to showcase and sell products to the public. But as I looked deeper, I realised that they also provide an opportunity to Network which grows and business’ client base as well as helps finding distributors, partners and potential investors. They also provide a safe environment in which businesses can assess the opinion of customers, determine market potential, conduct research and evaluate competition (Rai, 2009).
As team Planit, we took the opportunity of both trade fairs to get visibility outside of our class environment and to practice our Branding and Sales Strategies for the first time. This was also a chance for us to showcase our Minimum Viable Products and practice Networking and Pitching in a safe environment. We tested our MVP on early adopters and used their feedback to develop and improve our business. We were pushing potential clients to try out our product even though it was not 100% ready, as our goal was to make use of the Build-Measure-Learn Feedback Loop which is at the core of the Lean Startup model (Ries, 2011). We used those early adopter’s qualitative and quantitative feedback to Pivot and completely focus our attention on one specific customer Segment: the Elderly. This was a fundamental change in our Strategy as we realised that there was an underserved market waiting for us if we took the opportunity.
As an aspiring business owner, I am excited to take the Hard and Soft Skills I learned through my two trade fair experiences and make use of them in future Networking events.
We Won. Kind Of.
We were picked to compete in Bright Ideas, the annual pitching competition organised by Kingston University to showcase its students’ Entrepreneurial abilities. The week that preceded the pitching day was very turbulent for my team as we had to prepare and perfect our 3 minute pitch, anticipate questions for the Q/A as well as study for our other classes. My team had been going through a period of doubt as far as the business was concerned and were struggling to see its potential outside of university boundaries. However, after winning our Category in Bright Ideas, everything changed for me. Now I could convince my teammates that we had a potentially scalable Start-up on our hands since it was awarded £1000 by successful professionals and judges. Winning gave me new found belief and confidence but on the other hand and rather unexpectedly made my team complacent and lazy.
I have recently read a book by Angela Duckworth called Grit that I related to after we won Bright Ideas. According to Duckworth (2017), the culture in which we live powerfully shapes just about every aspect of our being. That does not only mean geographically, but means the shared norms and values of a group of people (Duckworth, 2017). That statement meant two things for me. First, my culture or ‘in group’ is the one that has been instilled in me since I was a child by my father the way he conducted the culture of our family business. Although it is only an office furniture retail company, the culture there is all about grit and passion. Whereby my approach to team management in my current Start-up was all about passion, perseverance, preparation and work ethic, my teammates had different approaches and it was very challenging to get them on the same page as me, maybe because of their different values, cultures and personalities. And second, our current ‘in group’ culture was heavily influenced by our previous break-up which was hard for some people to move on from. That created a lack of motivation in my team members which I did not know how to pull them out from. I wanted to create a better group culture for my team by talking about ‘how we should do things here’ but I found it challenging that my teammates had reserved personalities and preferred not sharing their issues with the team.
The team issues I explained earlier caused us to present a sub-par Business Report and Presentation. That, coupled with our team’s inability to make up for the average content with an enthusiastic pitch lead to our downfall as a Start-up. We failed to communicate our value propositions eloquently which lead the judges to perceive us as unconfident about our business model. Once dubbed the most skilful team in the class, we were now just skilful individuals working in something that looks like a team from the outside. I had been an ineffective leader and I take a shared part of the blame.
This module has given me a sneak peek into the world of creating and running Start-ups by using Design Thinking methods. I have experienced Team Conflicts, Working Lean, Trading, Pitching for Investment, Rapid Prototyping and Learning by Doing. However, as an aspiring Entrepreneur and future business owner in the product/interior design sector, the thing that I will be taking with me after this module has finished is the insights I formed on Collaboration and Team Communication. In real life I will have the luxury to choose from a variety of promising designers and business graduates and I learned that aside from the top class Hard Skills that they need to have, one Soft Skill that I will be looking for in them is Communication. And if the world continues to struggle with this pandemic, with more working from home and collaborating through online platforms, communication will become a necessity.
Note: Interestingly, right now would be a great idea to launch HugBuddy into real life. With the whole world working from home and stress levels rising, the opportunity kind of presented itself to take this projects to the market. However because of expensive manufacturing prices in the UK, I might have to find another way to do it.